*Note: I finished writing about my travels and adventures in India with the Pragati Schools a while back, but have only now found my way to uploading them to the blog. Apologies for their tardiness, and also for the way they are written. I wrote them almost immediately after my experiences, which I believe makes them more intimate and relevant, but it is perhaps confusing to read about something that happened in July as if it has just happened.
From July 22, 2010:
As far as I can gather, "chakkar" in Hindi means anything from rounds, round-about-journeys, dizziness, trouble, or confusion. The Chakkarpur Slum is in between Old Gurgaon and Delhi, and its name is a bit of a weak pun.
Gurgaon contains some of the most obvious examples of India's age-old disparity between socio-economic classes. When large multi-national corporations and industrial giants started building golf courses and apartment complexes in this area about fifteen years ago, they brought with them a large population of the upper class. However, in the areas in between the giant shopping malls and commercial towers, small slum villages started popping up around areas of construction. Often times, these slums contained small, one-room houses, where the families of the workmen could live. As soon as construction was finished, the slums were demolished, and the families had to find another place to live. The Chakkarpur slum is one of the largest, most long-lasting slum in the area. Many of the inhabitants are migrant workers from West-Bengal, and the men and women living there often work as rickshaw drivers, cleaners, house-maids, or security guards for the upper class. I haven't been able to find any concrete numbers, but one site guesses that anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 people may live in the Chakkarpur slum today.
Many of the children at Pragati live in the Chakkarpur slum or in nearby areas of a similar nature. As part of my video work, I have spent some time interviewing and speaking to some of the students of Pragati, and when I expressed my desire to accompany one of the students to their home, many concerned faces were exchanged. One boy, Abhijit, agreed to take us home with him, to show us where he lived. I was thrilled. This was one of my favorite students: a boy with a very serious nature, but a beautiful smile and an endearing eagerness that was heartbreaking. When I interviewed him, I had asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he responded without pausing, "I want to be a teacher at Pragati." In fact, you can see him hard at work in a photograph I took of him when I first arrived at Pragati.
Today I arrived at school and found him hyper with excitement and nervousness. Arati had agreed to come along as a translator, and we drove through Gurgaon, retracing the path Abhijit walks to school. As we drove, he pointed out landmarks from his daily walk to school and back. This yard is the one we sneak into and climb the mango tree to get mangos. This is the place I come for after school tutoring...
When we finally reached one of the entrances to the Chakkarpur slum, we had to park the car and leave it behind because it truly is like entering a labyrinth; the narrow paths between houses and sharp corners prohibit any vehicles from entering. Before we got out of the car, Arati passed me a shawl to wrap around my bare shoulders, and explained that here it would be too attention-grabbing to have them showing.
We followed Abhijit into the Chakkarpur slum, and I was instantly won over by the clotheslines zig-zagging between houses, with beautiful Saris hanging out to dry. Children darted in and out of the small huts, and girls peeked out from their doorways and giggled over Abhijit's sudden movie-star status. When we finally reached Abhijit's house, his mother, father, and little brother were all waiting for him. The house was a tiny, low-ceilinged, single-room space, with most of the floorspace being taken up by the one large bed that all four of them shared. The bed was also the only surface area, and functioned as a table-top, a place to sit, a place for Abhijit to lay out his books to study, etc. The house, like all the ones surrounding it, was built down into the ground, requiring a step down to enter.
The family was lovely, and it was amazing to watch Abhijit morph from a care-free, mishcievious boy into a responsible older brother.
Both Abhijit's parents were very excited to talk about Abhijit and his dream to be a teacher. He can do whatever he wants, his father told me. Abhijit went running to make tea and get cookies, despite our multiple attempts to explain that we didn't need anything. All of the cooking is done outside, since there is no ventilation in the one-room houses. Plenty of people tended small fires with various delicious smells wafting our way. The whole experience was humbling, terrible, overwhelming, and beautiful. When Abhijit gave us a tour around the slum, it was as if he was the pied piper: children appeared from everywhere to see what the commotion was about. Abhijit demonstrated how he studied on the bed, how he helped his mother cook. All the while his little brother stuck to his side.
When it finally came time to leave, he lead us back through the labyrinth to the car. He thanked us in English, and waited for us to board the car and start driving away, waving at us from the rearview window, like a proud mayor of his town.